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Is America no longer number one?

In the midst of the day-to-day struggles Americans face to retain the dignity that comes with work, to keep food on tables, roofs overhead and medicines in cabinets, something broader has been lost. A country that defined itself by its uniqueness, that exalted in being No. 1, is no longer the strongest economy in the world in the eyes of its citizens. In fact, a measly 36 percent of likely voters believe the U.S. is the world economic leader, according to a poll we recently completed with our Republican colleagues at Ayres McHenry for the Alliance for American Manufacturing. (Neither our colleagues nor our clients bear any responsibility for the interpretations herein, I hasten to add.)

In the public mind, the cause of our economic decline is simple, clear and unambiguous — the withering of our manufacturing sector. Voters see manufacturing as the central and irreplaceable core of a strong economy.
As one focus-group participant put it, speaking for many, “If manufacturing is not successful, then the economy is not successful.”

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Asked to identify the industry most important to the overall strength of the American economy, nearly four in 10 selected manufacturing, with healthcare second on the list, chosen by just over half as many. High tech and finance were each mentioned by only 12 percent.

Moreover, voters reject the notion that manufacturing can be replaced by other industries. Just 20 percent subscribe to the oft-repeated notion that “The strength of the American economy is innovation and competition — and if manufacturing leaves, we will move into new areas like high tech or services that will take its place in the future.” Fully two-thirds took the position that “Manufacturing is a critical part of the American economy and we need … manufacturing … if this country and our children are to thrive in the future.”

Ever optimistic, Americans have not given up on either the need or our ability to revive manufacturing so we can again assume the mantle of world economic leadership. Eighty-five percent contend that it is possible for us to regain our No. 1 ranking, while 94 percent believe it is important for us to do so.

However, there is clear recognition that achieving this vital goal will take effort, including widely supported changes in government policy. Just 10 percent favor no special action to help manufacturing, while the rest divide on the basis of the kind of government involvement they prefer. Nearly four in 10 march under the banner “By any means necessary,” maintaining we should do whatever it takes to revitalize our manufacturing sector. A slightly larger 47 percent support government action but want it restricted to “incentives and trade policy.” While rejecting direct bailouts and government control, they nonetheless advocate a wide array of policies in the toolboxes labeled “trade” and “incentives.”

 Thus, nearly eight in 10 voters support a coordinated national manufacturing policy, with some 90 percent favoring policies like rebuilding aging infrastructure with American-made materials, enacting tax breaks for companies that manufacture new products in the U.S. and adopting a tougher approach to unfair foreign trade.

Of course, some politicians now prioritize deficit reduction over job creation and fear many of these steps would add to the deficit.

While the public rejects their underlying premise for reasons I have discussed in earlier columns, voters put the emphasis on job creation. Fifty-four percent say creating jobs is one of the most important things the president and Congress should work on, compared to 38 percent who accord that priority to deficit reduction.

That is not to say voters do not care about deficits. It is to say they care about jobs even more and know that our economic future depends on a strong manufacturing sector.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.